What Happened – Important message, weak execution – Review

Gare – Friday, August 14, 2020 4:13 PM
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What Happened, a psychological horror game from developer Genius Slackers, touches upon a topic that I feel needs more exposure – it tells the story of a disturbed high school student, Stiles, as he struggles with severe depression and anxiety, highlighting his unstable mental health through a series of a surreal, symbolic experiences. I think the idea itself held promise, and I was quite looking forward to seeing how the game would represent something that countless people go through every day – often without anyone else being aware of it. Unfortunately, the results are a bit of a mixed bag, and while it does utilize a couple of good ideas, What Happened couldn’t quite make the impact I was hoping it would.

Light bulbs to light your way

Before we jump into all that, though, it’s worth briefly discussing exactly what kind of game this is. In terms of pure gameplay, What Happened falls squarely in the so-called “walking simulator” genre, which focuses primarily on gradual, deliberate storytelling while only offering minimal amounts of actual interactivity. Put simply, if you’re not a fan of this particular type of game, I very much doubt What Happened is going to make a convert out of you; though it does try to add brief snippets of puzzle-solving, they generally don’t extend beyond very simple – and often repetitive – tasks. Most of the game’s puzzles consist of either finding keys in drawers or picking up and screwing in light bulbs – the latter in particular happens repeatedly over the course of the adventure, to the point where you might be even tempted to call this a “how to install a light bulb” simulator. There are also a handful of fast-paced chase sequences, but sadly, even these mostly devolve into mildly exasperating exercises in trial and error – thankfully, though, they don’t last long enough to be too much of a detriment to the rest of the game. The bottom line is that you probably shouldn’t expect much from What Happened in terms of gameplay, although it is serviceable enough in the context of this particular genre.

Down the rabbit hole we go

Visually, the game does a very good job of establishing the surreal, ever-changing nightmare that is Stiles’ inner world. You’re faced with events that aggressively defy the laws of physics while exploring locations that twist and change with every other turn of the camera; you never know what to expect upon turning a corner, and this constant feeling of being part of a never-ending rollercoaster ride, I feel, was a nicely executed representation of the torrent of relentless, unpredictable emotions raging within Stiles’ subconscious. I similarly enjoyed the idea of making Stiles’ mind a separate entity that keeps talking to him over the course of the game – at times, this voice would vocalize and even exaggerate Stiles’ fears; at other times, it would berate him for his shortcomings. I obviously can’t speak for every single person struggling with such issues, but this felt like a fairly genuine portrayal of the inner voice that is anxiety trying to sabotage one’s life with unnecessarily self-deprecating comments.

Unfulfilled potential

Yet despite a solid foundation and some legitimately interesting ideas, What Happened’s characters and narrative, which should have served as the main supporting pillars of the entire experience, failed to really grab me. For one, using the context of a high school love triangle in order to try and explore the game’s themes simply did not work for me at all. I feel like there could’ve been a million better ways to tackle the issue, and I was left somewhat baffled as to why the narrative chose to go this route. In the end, we’re treated to a variety of underdeveloped and poorly-written attempts at high school drama that, instead of highlighting the importance of mental health issues, end up largely mishandling it. Additionally, the characters – Stiles included – aren’t nearly fleshed out enough to get the player invested in their plight, and the cutscenes, while visually creative, are held back by clumsy writing and inconsistent voice acting. I think games like Gone Home have already demonstrated that it’s possible to create relatable characters and emotionally rich storylines even with a relatively minimalistic approach (focusing mostly on audio recordings, journal entries and so on), so I was rather disappointed that What Happened failed to achieve something similar. What also left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth was the game’s finale. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that What Happened actually has more than one ending, but it’s fairly unclear as to what conditions need to be met in order to unlock the best possible outcome. Personally, I ended up unlocking the bad ending, after which the game promptly admonished me for not caring enough about Stiles – however, considering how linear and railroaded the overall experience felt, I wasn’t entirely sure what I could’ve done differently.

Final thoughts

Developer Genius Slackers seemed to be earnestly trying to give a serious issue some much-needed representation, and the message that people could be battling inner demons without their peers ever realizing it is one absolutely worth echoing. However, the game falters and fumbles when it comes to properly conveying said message in a powerful, thought-provoking manner – as a result, the otherwise visually stunning and often outright trippy levels are unfortunately placed in the service of a rather shallow and underdeveloped plot that fails to do its own subject matter justice.

What Happened is available on Steam.

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